Midnight Musings On Fire Emblem Heroes

The title of this post is a lie. Its actually 2:37am at the time of writing, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for alliteration.

In case you’re curious, my wee hours don’t normally consist of eating very late suppers/early breakfasts and blogging. This time I made the rookie mistake of falling asleep myself whilst settling a resisting three-year-old at about 9:30pm, and then all of a sudden it was 11-something and my body was convinced that having had a decent nap that was job done. Now after trying all the usual tricks I’ve given up on sleep for a while, so no guarantees on the quality of whatever comes next – we’re going for speed and mental exhaustion from here on in!

Last week I downloaded Nintendo’s second proper mobile game, Fire Emblem Heroes. Its a freemium (play for free, pay to expedite your progress) strategy release that plays out like Pokemon chess. The eponymous heroes serve as pieces on the board and work within a rock-paper-scissors (or grass-water-fire if you prefer) infused battle system. The characters may use ranged or melee weapons, be ground based or flying and have access to various magical powers but the one thing they all have in common is their heritage in the sizeable Fire Emblem back catalogue of games.

If you’re like me and have never played a Fire Emblem before then you may still recognise one or two heroes from the Smash Bros. series.

My experience of Heroes so far has been mixed. The game looks great and for fans of the franchise there would be some sentimental attraction to collecting the whole cast, Pokemon-style. There’s also plenty to do with a multi-layered story mode, training mode (which feels just like the story mode if you efficiently skip all of its dialogue) and an online competition mode of sorts. I say ‘of sorts’ because you battle teams that people have created and trained, but during the battle the opponents are controlled by AI instead of a human player. This undoubtedly speeds up gameplay but also takes some of the intrigue and spontaneity out of the experience.

My biggest gripe, however, is that – like many a freemium game before it – Fire Emblem Heroes is basically about grinding to collect stuff and then grinding to enhance it. Were the gameplay as varied as say, Blizzard’s Hearthstone, the grind wouldn’t be a chore. Unfortunately for Nintendo the subtleties of Fire Emblem‘s combat don’t emerge until you’ve made it through a good few hours of unlocking special abilities by completing what feels like the same match a hundred times. The most exciting moments are when you finally get to spend your hard-earned rewards to summon a handful of new heroes; that five second wait for the animation to complete and to reveal whether you’ve scored a 5-star character (6% chance) or rubbish is far more compelling than any of the matches you won in the previous hour and a half to get there. Then there’s the grinding for XP and currency that will enable you to raise your heroes’ power level, which goes on indefinitely. This is where Fire Emblem Heroes falls short in comparison with its long-established competitor Hearthstone.

If you’ve read much of this blog in the past then you’ll know that I think Hearthstone is a fantastic game. It got me through many a baby-settling in the aforementioned kid’s early months when – much like now – I knew I had to be ready for work in a few short hours’ time. Luckily I’ve since come to understand the performance enhancing properties of coffee for tough days like these, and life is rosier for it… but back to the games. One of Hearthstone‘s strongest features was that even with the basic decks you had available upon completion of the tutorial there was the potential to plan, test and refine a wide range of strategies against predictably unpredictable human opponents. The stronger cards that unlocked as you gained experience were welcome of course, but the inherent depth and variety of combat were so enjoyable that the repetitive process of battling hardly qualified as a ‘grind’ at all. Fire Emblem Heroes on the other hand is boring. What has hooked me to a degree is attempting to clear the pages of arbitrary quests which will be familiar to anyone with free-to-play mobile gaming experience. “Always give them something to do” must be a mantra in mobile development circles. The sign underneath that might read “Make each quest take 10% longer to complete” so that we the consumers will eventually get impatient and pay them money to get our sense of achievement fix.

Of course most aspects of the video game industry – be they traditional PC/console releases or microtransaction-laced expressions of boredom – boil down to a financial bottom line, but I’m surprised that Nintendo haven’t raised the bar to new heights with their belated entry into the mobile gaming genre. I had a preconception that they would engage ‘casual’ gamers on their phones as effectively as they did through Wii Sports, but neither Mario running nor the Fire Emblem crew chess-ing it up seem to have broken new ground or reminded the world of how much fun Nintendo have proven they can pack into their intellectual property.

And here’s a crazy idea: regardless of what platform your video game is on and whether its intended for two minute or two hour play sessions, if the gameplay is creative and engaging people will happily pay for it! Do I regret spending $30 on Hearthstone after I’d already played freely for a couple of months? Not at all – that game has been worth every cent and really I could have kept playing for free. On the contrary I see it as Blizzard having won my contribution through great game design.

At least with Fire Emblem all it has cost me is some time. Speaking of which, as it is now 4:28 I’ll leave it there and go to bed. Again.

If you know what I’ve missed with Fire Emblem Heroes (perhaps there’s a secret Fun-Factor button somewhere in the Settings menu?) then leave a comment as it would be nice for the eight or so hours I’ve spent with the game to blossom into a rewarding, long term relationship. Otherwise I might just delete Fire Emblem from my phone and never speak of this again.

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